The Bladen Review 2022

The 8th edition of BFREE’s annual magazine is now available in an interactive format online at Issuu! Get the latest news from the field station and learn about exciting research, conservation and education projects taking place in and around the rainforests of Belize. 

Highlights of the 2022 magazine include: updates on the conservation and outreach programs associated with cacao agroforestry, the Hicatee turtle, and Science & Education Fellowship Program.

Click here to download a PDF of The Bladen Review 2022.

Special thanks to Alyssa D’Adamo for designing this year’s magazine and to Shaman Marlin for photographing the cover image.

#CantiCam documents wildlife in the cacao agroforest

For over two years, Head Park Ranger, Sipriano Canti, has managed a BFREE research project to document wildlife movements throughout the reserve. At all times, he has eight to twelve Panthera wildlife cameras strategically located to capture patterns and activities of mammals and sometimes birds.

Canti has decades of experience with documenting wildlife using these types of cameras. He has worked with visiting researchers focused on different species and to answer different research questions. Therefore, he knows where to place cameras to best document activity.

With the development of the cacao agroforestry program at BFREE, he saw a unique opportunity to find out which animals are utilizing the cacao and when.

He began placing the cameras in several of the cacao blocks in areas where he anticipated a lot of movement. And the results have been successful. He routinely spots jaguars, tapirs, tayras, agoutis, coatis, deer as well as ground birds like common paraques and great currasow. The cameras also capture the movements of humans who utilize the property, which becomes important documentation for the protection program.


These cameras provide proof that the cacao agroforestry system provides healthy habitat for a diversity of species. As the farm grows and changes, we are excited to see how the density and diversity of wildlife is also changed.

The Science of Fine Chocolate

by Jacob Marlin

The flavor attributes of chocolate, especially fine flavor chocolate, is determined by numerous factors: 1. Genetics of the cacao, 2. The farming practices implemented, 3. The location, biophysical features, and climactic conditions of where it is grown (also called terrior), 4. The time of harvest, 5. Fermentation protocols, 6. Drying methods, and finally the chocolate-making including, 7. Roasting and, 8. The final recipe. Each of these factors has tremendous variability and requires specific expertise to successfully implement the management and interventions.

Fermentation is a critical aspect in flavor development and final acidity of a finished chocolate bar. You can’t hide bad fermentation in chocolate. If the beans are over-fermented, they yield an undesirable, wet “barnyard” type flavor. If they are under-fermented, the results are an astringent attack on your tastebuds that causes your mouth to pucker.

Even with the best farming practices producing the finest beans, if the fermentation is not done to its fullest potential the results will be disappointing at best. Our work to determine this important stage in producing some of the world’s finest chocolate is an important part of our current efforts.

BFREE began a collaboration with Dancing Lion Chocolate in Manchester, New Hampshire, to begin to determine the best fermentation protocols for Criollo cacao. Crioco Cacao’s Operations Manager, Elmer Tzalam, and I managed the fermentation experiment at the BFREE Field Station. Because there is no information on successful fermentation of the rare and ancient Criollo cacao, we had to undertake our methods based on limited information. We instituted three separate fermentation protocols and upon completion sent these batches to Dancing Lion Chocolate, where my good friend and colleague Rich Tango-Lowy and my son, Shaman Marlin, processed the beans into chocolate using a standardized roasting methodology. These three profiles were then molded into exquisite artfully designed hand crafted limited release specialty chocolate bars. Dancing Lion Chocolates is not your typical chocolate shop. Each bar is a work of art – visually dazzling and delicious. And chocolate is made in small batches and only one time in that exact way, they never repeat the same recipe twice. Rich has used BFREE Criollo cacao in the past on a few specialty bars and bonbons. After visiting BFREE with his wife, Torene, and Dancing Lion’s Baker, Donna McLintock, we began a conversation on how to improve and refine our fermentation methods.

I’m thrilled to announce that our initial collaboration was a success. Chocolate from these three different batches will be sold this year through Dancing Lion Chocolate. I’m especially proud to acknowledge Shaman Marlin who has been working at Dancing Lion for over a year and was responsible for making the chocolate in these bars! A very limited supply will be available in the shop and online after Thanksgiving. The bars can be identified by Criollo I, Criollo II, and Criollo III.

By determining the best fermentation protocols based on continuous feedback, revisions can be made until the process reveals the unique flavor attributes intrinsic to this unique cacao. In 2016, the BFREE cacao beans and chocolate were designated “heirloom fine flavor” by the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund (HCP), one of only 16 cacao varieties throughout the world to receive such an honor. In order to get designated “Heirloom Fine Flavor”, beans are submitted to HCP blind, meaning the chocolate maker, in collaboration with Guittard Chocolate, does not know where the beans were sourced. Once made into chocolate liquor and chocolate, it is tasted, also blind, by a 9-person panel made up of the world’s most expert chocolate tasters. If the flavor meets a very high mark, the beans are designated Heirloom. Based on those results and additional feedback and reviews, we are confident that this Criollo cacao is unlike any other cacao in the world, and this inspires us to continue our efforts to master the process, from the nursery to fermentation to chocolate bar.

From Bean to Bar: BFREE’s cacao program bears fruit

by Jacob Marlin

Over the past three years, BFREE has been doing research and experimentation to develop a model for farming the BFREE Criollo cacao, under its for-profit – Crioco Cacao, LLC. The goal is to create healthy and productive trees that yield cacao beans that are ultimately made into some of the world’s best Heirloom Fine Flavor chocolate. So, we are experimenting with creating conditions in the farm as well post-harvesting protocols including fermentation and drying techniques. Our work is challenging and requires a lot of innovation. Primarily because this cacao has been growing in isolation on BFREE property for thousands of years and has not been worked with by anyone in the cacao industry.

Specifically, experiments have focused on fine-scaled management of the farm setting to provide the optimal conditions for cacao tree health. This includes planting and managing temporary and permanent shade trees, as this variety of cacao has been growing under the natural canopy of the rainforest for thousands of years, and requires a lot of shade. To date, we have planted over 10,000 criollo cacao trees and an equal amount of shade trees representing 25 soil enriching native forest and fruit tree species. The work begins in the nursery with very specific protocols including grafting robust seedlings with clonal material from the most productive criollo trees on site, and continues as the young trees are transplanted into the farm. Specific pruning protocols, of both the cacao and shade trees is a constant endeavor, and careful management is required as each tree has its own unique set of conditions and expressions. Organic nutrition is applied throughout the year, and regular observations and adaptive management takes place as the dry and rainy seasons set in. Extensive data is collected throughout the year, providing the basis for improving management and adapting the conditions to best reflect the perceived requirements of this rare and unusual cacao.   

Historically, much of the available literature states that cacao trees with a high percentage of criollo genetics are very difficult to get optimal productivity because of low yield, are prone to disease and pests, and are difficult to cultivate on a commercial scale. However, initial results from our work suggest otherwise. We are finding that with careful and specific management activities, this unique variety of 100% Criollo genetics shows promise that it can be highly productive given the right conditions.

After three years of trial and error plus the hard work of our staff as well as meaningful contributions from expert advisors, we are narrowing in on the exact conditions for the trees to thrive. As the pictures below illustrate, trees in the best condition are showing very high levels of productivity after just two years and promise to bear fruit in the years to come. These early results keep us working toward our goal to create a thriving cacao agroforestry system which restores forests and provides habitat for a wide array of wildlife species while also providing some of the world’s finest chocolate to the consumer while simultaneously providing a sustainable climate smart source of revenue for BFREE to further achieve our important conservation work.


World Migratory Bird Day 2022

BFREE celebrated two important bird days on Saturday, May 14 – Global Big Day and World Migratory Bird Day. Global Big Day is an opportunity for citizen scientists to gather essential data about the birds in their area. While World Migratory Bird Day uses a different theme each year to draw attention to challenges migratory birds face across the globe. The 2022 campaign focused on light pollution’s impact on migratory birds. Activities to mark the day were under the theme “Dim the Lights for Birds at Night”.

BFREE staff and students from Lakeland University were excited for the opportunity to participate. We split into three teams to cover as much of the property as possible. Lakeland University began early at the observation tower and were rewarded with an assortment of parrots, raptors and small birds.

In addition to the observation tower, we explored other areas including the garden and orchard, the Agami Lagoon, the cacao agroforest, the boundary line, and various spots along the Bladen River. During our day-long adventure, we observed some beautiful and interesting birds. A few of the many birds we enjoyed included: Common nighthawk, Swallowtail kite, Keel-billed motmot, Amazon kingfisher, Sepia-capped flycatcher, Yellow-headed parrot, and the Great currasow. We observed a total of 117 bird species. Because all participants were not eBird subscribers, we submitted one checklist at the end of the day.

The BFREE Birding Club keeps growing! BFREE participating staff were: Nelly Cadle, Thomas Pop, Sipriano Canti, Marcos Kuk, Jonathan Dubon, Mark Canti, and Heather Barrett.

Celebrating Earth Day

Students from Keene High School in Keene, New Hampshire helped BFREE staff celebrate Earth Day by planting seeds. This is Keene High School teacher, Matt Brady’s, fourth trip to Belize and to BFREE. He is joined by fellow teachers, Christine Gillis, Monica Foley, and Jodie Ballaro. Their group was scheduled to come to the field station in 2020 but was cancelled due to the pandemic. They tried again last year with no luck. This makes us especially thrilled to host them in 2022.

In a BFREE interview with Mark Canti and Jonathan Dubon on Facebook Live for Earth Day, Matt described why he wanted to return. “BFREE is a really special place for lots of reasons. I’m really happy to be here to meet young people like you. People who contribute to the ecology of the area and are conservationists. That is very important to me, the way BFREE is set up to keep young people coming in from the area. This is why we keep coming back.”

In a surprising turn of events for dry season, it began raining at 9am during the student orientation. The rain continued throughout the morning and into the afternoon, but this didn’t dampen anyone’s spirits. The students continued their orientation and tour of the facilities. After lunch, everyone divided into groups for service projects. Nine students helped with planting germinated cacao seeds in the nursery. An additional fourteen students helped at the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center where they assisted in a project to improve the exterior fence. The remainder of the students supported the long-term large mammal research project by checking camera traps on the property.

We are grateful that Matt, Christine, Monica and Jodie worked so hard to come back to BFREE this year.

Creating Strong Rootstock for Heirloom Cacao

Grafting is the preferred method of vegetative propagation for cacao (Theobroma cacao). Grafting allows farmers to choose the qualities they want in their trees and reduce expenses related to sourcing cacao trees. But before a tree can be grafted, you must grow the rootstock.

This year our seeds are coming from Ana Maria farm in Guatemala to create our rootstock. This variety has been bred over many years to produce a strong and robust seedling that is fast-growing, can withstand drought conditions, and provides excellent rootstock for BFREE’s heirloom criollo cacao.

In Guatemala, pods are cracked open and the best cacao seeds are carefully selected. After that, they are disinfected for any possible fungal disease. Finally, they are germinated and are ready for transport. Ten thousand seeds will travel to Belize and reach BFREE today in order to be planted tomorrow on Earth Day.

Special thanks to Erick Ac for providing the cacao seeds and the wonderful photos!

New Cacao Operations Manager

Congratulations to Mr. Elmer Tzalam. He has recently taken on the new role of Cacao Operations Manager for Crioco Cacao, LLC. This is well-deserved promotion for Elmer. He has been a faithful employee to BFREE for over ten years.

Elmer Tzalam is Crioco Cacao LLC’s Cacao Operations Manager

Elmer began working with BFREE in June 2011 as the project’s first cacao farm worker. Prior to BFREE, Elmer received cacao training internationally with the organization CATIE. He used the knowledge gained in training to support the growth of the cacao trees at BFREE. For years, he nurtured the cacao and coffee trees in that original farm plot – now designated Block 1. When it was necessary to begin collecting data on the wild Criollo trees found throughout the property, Elmer took responsibility. He would hike deep into the forest, sometimes alone, sometimes with other BFREE staff or volunteers.

He is multi-talented and has many years of work experience prior to joining the BFREE team in 2011. Because of his well-rounded work history, Elmer has filled many roles at the field station. From supporting student groups, to maintaining the facilities, to delivering supplies, to training new cacao staff – he has done a little bit of everything and he understands how this field station works.

“Elmer has been instrumental in the development of BFREE’ cacao program since its inception,” stated Jacob Marlin, Crioco Cacao, CEO. “His extensive experience in the many cacao operations such as the nursery, the wild trees, the farm and with post-harvest processing make him invaluable to our agroforestry program.”

The cacao nursery at BFREE

Each year the cacao nursery at BFREE is restored and prepared for the new planting season. Any old plants or trees are removed and fresh liner is laid, the area is weeded and trimmed, and damaged poles are replaced. Additionally, the nursery was expanded to hold more bags and the irrigation system was modified for more efficient watering.

Soon after those preparations were made, came the task of filling thousands of nursery bags. Lucky for us, ARCC participants showed up just in time to help fill bags with a sand and soil mixture. Because of them, a huge job became much more manageable.

BFREE Cacao Fellows are assigned to the management of the cacao nursery, so Mark Canti has replaced Lenardo Ash as caregiver to the young cacao and shade trees. Once bags are filled and put in place, Mark waters and fertilizers the soil to prepare for seed planting. In the coming months, he will be responsible for ensuring the successful growth of the nursery trees.

Shade trees are just as important to this project as cacao trees, so both short-term and long-term shade tree seedlings are included. Therefore, five varieties of short-term shade trees were planted: Pigeon Pea, Plantain, Bananas, Erythrina and Madre de cacao. Long-term shade trees include Bribri, Jobillo, two species of Barbajalote, and Mahogany. We continue to search the property for other types of seedpods and saplings.

Testing sugar content in cacao

Cacao staff at BFREE are learning to harvest cacao pods when they are the sweetest. Last month, Elmer Tzalam and Mark Canti harvested cacao pods to test sugar content at different stages of ripeness. They carefully opened each pod one at a time. Then they scraped out several beans and place them in a mesh bag. They squeezed a few drops of juice from the bag onto a tool called a refractometer. Finally, they held the refractometer to their eye and looked into the direction of a bright light source. As a result, they received a reading of “degrees brix” which is the sugar content of an aqueous solution. 

One degree Brix is 1 gram of sucrose in 100 grams of solution and represents the strength of the solution as percentage by mass. Brix Refractometers are built to measure the sucrose content of a sample through refraction. These meters are capable of incredibly quick and accurate results and are used often in the food and beverage industries. 

The wild, heirloom criollo cacao at BFREE has never been grown in a farm setting. Therefore, the data we collect is new information to the cacao industry and is part of our efforts to characterize this ancient heirloom fine flavor variety. By using tools like the refractometer, we will begin to better understand the most desirable moment to harvest a pod.

Additional info about how Brix refractometers work

Traditional refractometers are handheld analogue instruments. They are held up to the light, so that it shines through the sample. The light is then directed through a prism and lenses onto a measurement scale. A shadow will be case on the measurement scale at the angle where total internal reflection occurs. Observing this shadow through the eyepiece gives the brix reading.

A special thanks to Skyler and Austin from the visiting ARRC group for their enthusiastic participation in this process.